R. K. Narayan

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Last Updated on October 26, 2018, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1109

Rasipuram Krishnaswami Narayan (nuh-RI-yuhn) was born into a prosperous middle-class family on October 10, 1906, in Madras, India. There he spent his early years with his grandmother and uncle. Later he joined his parents, brothers, and sisters in the family home in Mysore. Mysore is probably the basis of his fictional city Malgudi, an Indian city as complex and as real as William Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha County. Although according to his memoirs he was never particularly enthusiastic about academic work, Narayan attended a Lutheran mission school and Christian College High School (both in Madras) and in 1930 received his B.A. from Maharaja’s College (later the University of Mysore). He married in 1933; his wife, Rajam, gave birth to their only child, a daughter named Hema, in 1938. Rajam died of typhoid in 1939. Narayan never remarried.

Narayan began reporting for the Madras newspaper The Justice in 1933. After brief stints in teaching and journalism, he decided that he would be a fiction writer. His first novel, Swami and Friends, the comic story of two young Indian boys, was set in the fictional city that would make him famous. Yet the friend in England to whom Narayan had entrusted his manuscript could not find a publisher for it. In despair Narayan told his friend to destroy it. Instead, the friend took the manuscript to the writer Graham Greene, who was so impressed that he placed it with a publisher.

In his second book, The Bachelor of Arts, published two years later, Narayan takes a young man into a marriage, arranged, like the writer’s own, with the help of a horoscope. The Dark Room also deals with a marriage, but one far less happy than that of Narayan. When his own beloved young wife died of typhoid, Narayan faced a spiritual crisis; out of that crisis came the spiritual growth, the intellectual maturity, and the acceptance of life which would bring to Narayan new status as a writer. After his father’s death in 1937, Narayan began selling articles to magazines. That year, British novelist W. Somerset Maugham visited Mysore and read Narayan’s work. In 1938, Narayan received a government grant to write a travel book about Karnataka state, and this experience provided information for many future works. In 1939 he began writing stories for the Madras newspaper The Hindu. He began publishing his own periodical, Indian Thought, in 1941.

The English Teacher, published in 1945, which tells the story of a teacher who loses his wife, is the first of Narayan’s major novels. Critics praised the work, which was both more unified and more profound than those which had preceded it. During the 1940’s, Narayan had also been developing his skill as a short-story writer. By 1943, he had published his first two books of short fiction, with another volume the next year. In the years that followed, Narayan’s name was to be seen increasingly in prestigious periodicals, and from time to time, his brief stories, most of which were set in Malgudi, were collected in volumes with intriguing names, such as An Astrologer’s Day, and Other Stories and A Horse and Two Goats, and Other Stories.

With Mr. Sampath, Narayan began the exploration of various Malgudi characters which was to be typical of his later novels. The printer in that book and the banyan-tree financial adviser-turned-moneylender in The Financial Expert alternate between success and disaster; finally, they discover that the only solution to life’s problems seems to be the pursuit of tranquillity. As a Rockefeller Foundation grant recipient in 1956, Narayan made his first visit...

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to the United States, and the result was a revealing book of travel sketches,My Dateless Diary. Meanwhile, the novel which many critics consider his best appeared. Although The Guide is experimental in form, it resembles the other later novels in following the development of a single character, in this case, that of a trickster who comes out of prison to become a saint. A film version of The Guide was produced in 1964, and a stage version appeared on Broadway in 1968. Narayan’s autobiographical My Days reveals much about his attitude toward life, as does A Tiger for Malgudi, in which the narrator is a tiger who must learn his own spiritual lesson: to deny his instinct for violence.

Like that book, most of Narayan’s short stories and his novels generally focus on an external crisis, which is intensified by the vacillation of the central character, by the absence of logical thought in the characters around him, and by the movements of fate, a force which seems to be as whimsical as the human beings it governs. It is common that the deck is stacked against Narayan’s characters; even when one of them has a temporary triumph, it is certain to be followed by a reversal. On a smaller scale, Narayan’s short stories emphasize the confusion of human perceptions and the insubstantiality of human dreams as clearly as his novels do. The hilarious story “A Horse and Two Goats,” for example, dramatizes the confusion which develops when a New Yorker, who speaks only English, encounters a poor old Indian, who speaks no English. In the ensuing transaction, the New Yorker pays the Indian for a roadside statue and carries it away; the Indian thinks that he has sold his goats for an enormous price. When he arrives home with the money, his wife becomes suspicious; when the goats turn up as well, he is terrified that the police will soon follow, and the wife determines to leave for the home of her parents.

Two of Narayan’s novels are particularly interesting because of their emphasis on the influence of Mahatma Gandhi: In Waiting for the Mahatma, published in 1955, the two young protagonists, who are disciples of Gandhi, seem to be doomed to failure at every turn, and in The Sweet-Vendor, published twelve years later, a man whose life was changed by his allegiance to the ideals of Gandhi finds that the next generation, and particularly his own greedy son, turned back on those ideals. Because Narayan sees the only real triumphs in life as spiritual ones, some critics have accused him of being an apostle of social stagnation; however, it is generally recognized that he is simply realistic. Beyond the struggles of individuals for worldly success and of societies for social justice, Narayan suggests, humankind must have a spiritual goal if life is to have meaning. Narayan received many awards, including the 1958 National Prize of the Indian Literary Academy, the 1964 Padma Bhushan Award, the 1965 National Association of Independent Schools Award, and the 1975 English-Speaking Union Book Award for My Days. He died in 2001 at the age of ninety-four.


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